blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Awful English

My computer gave me some advice the other day, but it left me baffled:
If you do not use Java applets, it is recommended that you disable the Java web plug-in in your web browser.
I don't think my lack of comprehension is my fault. I think it is due to a lack of imagination in the person who came up with the message, who can't fathom or doesn't want to remember what it's like to be a newcomer to this jargon. Tonight I got a memo about disabling my active cookies as well; I don't suppose everyone user knows what that means, either, let alone how to set about all this disabling.

I can always ask my husband, but there plenty of people not married to techies, who must feel very irked by such messages. What they need is a translation. The trouble is, the sort of linguist who might be able to find a way of conveying the requisite information more clearly (me?) is not the sort of person who would ever want a job of that kind.

A similar problem arises in the scientific community to which my daughter belongs.

She recently received a notice saying, “Don’t be waitlisted. Book Exhibit Space now. 70% of expo floor sold!” and commented, "Now that’s the first time I’ve heard waitlist rather than waiting list, let alone having it used as a verb!"

My daughter is involved in the processing of observations made from spacecraft that orbit and monitor our planet. In the European Long Term Data Preservation Common Guidelines, with which she has to comply, the stated aim is:
To preserve the European (including Canada) Earth Observation space data set for an unlimited time-span ensuring and facilitating its accessibility and useability. EO Space Data are fundamental for the future of science and are a humankind asset.*
Emma says that "people even talk like this. I think they read so many documents like it that they think this is the only way to get the correct register. But I struggle – and I’m a native English speaker."

Bad writing comes from laziness and sloppy thinking and makes me angry, especially when the subject is so important.  The "correct register" to these people is an exclusion zone for everyone else. Emma ought to point out that bad writing causes confusion, I suggested, and for ammunition I recommended John Humphrys' acclaimed book, Lost for Words;-- The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 2004. (She bought it and read it! Now she'll need the nerve to confront the culprits with their shortcomings.)

*  Couldn't this have been better phrased? I thought so. I gave it a try:
We aim to preserve European / Canadian data on earth observations from space indefinitely, making sure the data are easily accessible. Observations of the earth from space are fundamental to the future of science and to humankind.

Humphrys wrote:
The great skill of management-speak is its ability to state the obvious in such a way that normal human beings won't have a clue what it means [...]  It puts the author on a pedestal and the rest of us in our place.
On the last page of his book he quotes a Roman rhetorician, 2000 years ago:
One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand. 

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